The name "Negombo" was first used by the Portuguese; the Sinhala name Migamuva means the "Group of Bees". It was named a few centuries before in the ancient kings' era. The army of King Kavantissa found bee honey in a canoe near the seashore, for Viharamahadevi who was pregnant with the prince Dutugamunu. Because of this, the place was named "Mee-Gomuwa".
The wild cinnamon that grew in the region around Negombo was said to be "the very best in the universe as well as the most abundant" and for centuries attracted a succession of foreign traders and colonial powers. The shallow waters of the Nigombo Lagoon provided safe shelter for seafaring vessels and became one of the key ports (along with Kalpitiya, Puttalam, Salavata, Kammala, Colombo, Kalutara, Beruwela, and Galle from which the Singhalese kingdoms conducted external trade. The first Muslim Arabs (the Moors) arrived in Ceylon in the seventh and eighth centuries and eventually dominated the east-west trade routes. Many chose to settle in the coastal areas, and their legacy can be seen today; their descendants the Sri Lankan Moors remain the largest minority group in Negombo. The Moors' long-held monopoly over the cinnamon trade, and the circuitous and largely overland route by which it was transported to Europe and the Mediterranean, added greatly to its cost. It encouraged a Portuguese takeover in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth century. Landing in the early 1500s, the Portuguese ousted the Moors, constructed a fort in Negombo and took over the trade of cinnamon to the West. During the Portuguese occupation, the Karawa (traditional fishing clan of Negombo) embraced Catholicism almost without exception. So successfully were they converted that today Negombo is sometimes known as 'Little Rome' and nearly two thirds of its population profess a Catholic faith.